- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

SAN DIEGO — For some time Dodge dealers have been begging for a midsize SUV, in order to compete with the Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox and Nissan XTerra, the leaders in the segment.

In 2002, at the Detroit auto show, the introduction of the M80 concept was the first hint at the arrival of such a new vehicle. That came in the shape of the Nitro concept, which debuted in Chicago a year ago. In the meantime, the production version of Dodge’s first SUV is ready to arrive in the showrooms next month.

The new SUV will also be exported to Europe to underline the “grab life by the horns” attitude that Dodge promotes there as well as in the U.S. since the reintroduction of the brand earlier this year. On the European markets, the Nitro will accompany the Caliber and, of course, the Viper. The latter has been sold on the European markets as a Chrysler, but since the return of Dodge to the Old World, the Viper now is a Dodge there as well.

Last week, at the Paris auto show, the Nitro had its European premiere and was well received. Dodge has been able to maintain the design of the concept car that showed a bold stance with pronounced fender flares and the signature Dodge grille. The production version has it all; even 20-inch wheels will be standard on the R/T (Road & Track) model and available for the SLT. The SXT base model gets 16-inch wheels and the SLT will get 17-inch wheels.

The size of the Nitro is only slightly different from that of the concept. The length of 178.9 inches is just over 1 inch shorter, but the width (73.1 in.) is the same. With a 108.8-inch wheelbase, the cockpit offers a lot of space.

Dodge has equipped the Nitro with an equally bold-looking interior, with a four-spoke leather steering wheel, an instrument panel with three pods that look as if they are taken from a motorbike.

The seats are tall and well-bolstered and have two-tone Yes-fabric that is water-repellent and stain-resistant. The rear seats fold 60/40 flat, while the front passenger seat folds flat as well to provide space for hauling long objects.

There is plenty of storage room and the luggage compartment is equipped with a new feature called Load ‘n Go. It means that there is a panel that slides outside for 18.7 inches and can hold up to 400 pounds.

Underneath is room for small goods up to 4 inches thick. Load ‘n Go is standard on the Nitro SLT and R/T.

Two engines will be available for the new Dodge. The SXT and SLT get the 3.7-liter V-6 with 210 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds of torque. This engine is used by the Chrysler Group for a number of Jeeps and for the Caravan.

The R/T will be equipped with the 4.0-liter V-6 that is an enhanced version of the 3.5 used in such models as the Dodge Magnum, Chrysler 300 C and Pacifica. This power plant delivers 260 horsepower and has a maximum torque of 265 foot-pounds. The V-6 in the SXT will be mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Available will be the four-speed automatic that will form the standard combination with the 3.7 V-6 in the SLT. The 4.0-liter V-6 gets the five-speed automatic transmission. Export markets will get a third engine, the common rail direct-injected diesel, developed by the Italian engineering company VM Motori.

The Nitro is built on the same underpinnings as the Jeep Liberty with independent front suspension and a live axle with trailing arms in the rear. The SUV will be available both as two-wheel- or four-wheel-drive models. With an approach angle of 25.6 degrees, a breakover angle of 22.0 and a departure angle of 27.6 degrees there will be fair off-road capabilities. The 3.7 V-6 models are available with electronically shifted part-time 4x4 system, whereas the 4.0 V-6 R/T gets full-time four-wheel drive (48/52).

Last month, we were able to drive the new SUV 3.7 V-6. What you immediately notice is that the Nitro is really stable in corners. That is not usual for SUVs that have a high center of gravity and usually have body movement when you are actively driving through bends. If you were not seated rather high above the road, you might think that the Nitro is a “normal” car. Furthermore, in the cockpit it is really quiet. There is hardly any engine noise, except when accelerating and, in fact, only the outside mirrors are making some wind noise.

The engine is willing and responds quickly to the throttle, while it absolutely has no problems with mountain roads. Steering feel is good and obedient. You can drive the Nitro aggressively without feeling insecure. The Nitro will get ABS with brake assist, ESP electronic stability program, traction control, Electronic Roll Mitigation and side curtain air bags. The innovative My Gig multimedia infotainment system with a 20 GB hard drive for downloading music and photos from CD, DVD or USB memory stick is available for about $1,700.

The Nitro SXT is priced at $19,885, the SLT at $23,200 and the R/T at $25,900, all-inclusive destination for $660.

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